Alien: The monster returns?

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Joseph Gammie on the new Ridley Scott film and the origin of that species

In space, goes the saying, no one can hear you scream. The tagline heralded Ridley Scott's Alien, which spawned one of the most successful sci-fi/horror franchises in film history. And now it's back. Seven films and countless merchandising spin-offs after we first encountered the implacable killing machines, fans continue to ask questions about the origin of the creatures and the planet where they were discovered.

Predictably, then, when the new trailer for Ridley Scott's Prometheus was screened last weekend, social media lit up with expectation. Few would bet against the film, which opens on 1 June, being one of the box-office blockbusters of this summer.

True, the slimy, multiple-jawed, acid-blooded monsters will not be the focus of the new film. Instead, Prometheus – Scott's return to the sci-fi genre after more than 30 years – considers how human civilisation could be linked to highly advanced extra terrestrials. It has impressively expensive CGI and – crucially – a strong cast.

That the film is titled after a titan whose punishment for allowing man to have fire was to be bound to a rock and cursed to suffer an eagle repeatedly eating his liver for all eternity suggests there will be no happy ending.

The Films

Alien The original Jaws-in-space horror directed by Ridley Scott. The crew of a mining ship in 2122 unwittingly brings an alien creature aboard that begins slaughtering them one by one. The film's power lay in the fact that the monster remained hidden in shadow until very near the end.

Released 25 May 1979

Box office $3,527,881 (£2,187,286) opening weekend, $104,931,801 (£64,008,399) total

Critical reaction The film was a commercial success, although its mix of horror and science fiction genres led to patchy reviews. It won the 1979 Academy Award for visual effects.

Aliens James Cameron's sequel. After surviving her first encounter with the alien, Ripley is revived 57 years later to help a team of marines investigate missing colonists. Cue shooting and grisly deaths.

Released 18 July 1986

Box office $10,052,042 (£6,131,745) opening weekend, $131,060,248 (£79,946,751) total

Critical reaction Finished only the week it was released, Aliens was well received. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning best sound effects editing and visual effects.

Alien 3 Stretching credulity by once again surviving the slaughter, Ripley crashes in her spaceship on a penal colony in the third film, which was directed by David Fincher. This time she has one of the monsters inside her. Another sets about slaughtering the colony's prisoners. The film has a downbeat ending, with Ripley committing suicide.

Released 22 May 1992

Box office $19,449,867 opening weekend, $55,473,545 total

Critical reaction Alien 3 received mixed reviews, paling in comparison with its two predecessors. Nominated for an Academy Award for visual effects, it lost to Death Becomes Her.

Alien Resurrection The fourth instalment in the Alien franchise was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Ripley and the queen embryo she was carrying are cloned by scientists 200 years after her death. Now part alien, the reconstituted Ripley must stop the creatures from reaching Earth.

Released 26 November 1997

Box office $16,474,092 opening weekend, $161,376,068 total

Critical reaction Many consider it the least successful of the series with mainly negative reviews. Then again, it grossed more than $161m worldwide.

Alien VS Predator (AVP) Paul W S Anderson directs a mash-up of the Alien and Predator franchises, inspired by a computer game. Humans investigating strange signals come across a subterranean hunting ground in a frozen polar region, where predators stalk aliens. They must stop the battle from reaching the surface, etc.

Released 13 August 2004

Box office $38,291,056 opening weekend, $172,544,654 total

Critical reaction Although reviewers praised the special effects and set design, most of the reviews have been negative, based on a weak plot and dialogue. IMDb gives the film 5.5, and a Metacritic rating of 29/100.

Alien VS Predator: Requiem (AVPR) The 2007 sequel to AVP was directed by the Strause brothers. An alien-predator hybrid, Predalien, is unleashed in Colorado after a predator ship crashes. A lone predator arrives to deal with it, but it is humans that get caught in the crossfire.

Released 25 December 2007

Box office $10,059,425 opening weekend, $128,884,494 total

Critical reaction Being nominated for Worst Excuse for a Horror Movie and Worst Prequel or Sequel at the Golden Raspberry Awards doesn't suggest the film was well received. It has the lowest rating out of all the films in the franchise on Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb.

Prometheus The new not-quite prequel to the Alien franchise, released next month. Set in 2085, it is grand and visually stunning but with relatively few monsters. Teasingly, the director Ridley Scott says it will give some hints about the origins of the alien species.

Released 1 June 2012

Box office Release pending

Critical reaction It has already amassed huge excitement online, virtually guaranteeing a box-office hit. The critics have to wait only a few more weeks to get their teeth into it.

The Creatures

Alien The ultimate killing machine, this multi-fanged creature is the basis for the whole franchise. Hatched inside living hosts, the species has no hobbies and few interests apart from killing and reproducing. Having acid for blood makes them particularly tricky to kill.

Facehuggers The first alien we encounter. These spider-like creatures clamp their legs around their victim's face and insert a tube down their throat, implanting an embryo in their chest. Attempts to remove the monsters are likely to kill the victim.

Chestburster The alien foetus and the ultimate unwelcome guest, which is implanted by the facehugger. The host generally remains unaware of its presence. Once it's ready, however, the chestbuster lives up to its name and exits through the host's ribcage, as depicted in an infamous scene from the original movie.

Dog Alien A variation on the alien, grown out of the prison colony's pet hound. It moves on four legs instead of two on account of its using canine DNA rather than human.

Queen Alien Significantly larger and stronger than normal aliens, queens possess an extra set of arms and a larger head. They lay eggs from a termite-like ovipositor. Ripley faces down a queen at the end of Aliens.

Newborn Created from Ripley and the queen embryo inside her in Alien Resurrection. They display human traits, such as having a womb, so they can give birth directly. They also look more humanoid.

Predator A stalking alien, made famous in the eponymous 1987 film. Essentially an intergalactic big-game hunter with an array of space-age weapons. Taller than humans, they have long hair-like appendages, piggish snouts and insect-like mandibles.

Predalien An alien-predator hybrid, introduced in AVPR when an alien embryo is implanted into a predator. Taking characteristics from both species, it can also implant eggs directly into hosts, making it much like a queen alien.

The characters and cast

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver): Weaver, as the long-running heroine of the series, was the last actor to be cast, and it was her first lead role. She had Broadway but little film experience, but her strong performance earned her a Bafta nomination for most promising newcomer to a leading film role.

Bishop/Michael Bishop II/Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen): A recurring face in the franchise, Henriksen plays a variety of roles, some of them connected. Speculation is rife over whether his android, Bishop, is based on Charles Weyland, and also on whether Michael Bishop II is man or machine.

Ash (Ian Holm): Although it was one of his first major film roles, Holm was the most experienced member of the cast in Alien. He played the ship's science officer, but it is later revealed that he is an android with ulterior motives.

Kane (John Hurt): Hurt's role in Alien doesn't last long. But he is now part of film lore because of the unforgettable moment when the alien bursts from his chest. Nominated for the Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Annalee Call (Winona Ryder): Apparently took the role in Alien Resurrection because her brother was a fan of the franchise. Plays an android mercenary who tries to kill Ripley to stop the spread of the aliens, but is too late. Won a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for best actress.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace): An archaeologist on the Prometheus. Rapace, who starred in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films, describes her as optimistic, before events turn her into a warrior. Already being tipped as the new film's Ellen Ripley.

David (Michael Fassbender): An advanced android in Prometheus, indistinguishable from humans, and a forerunner to Ash and Bishop. Fassbender says he didn't base his role on previous androids but on the replicants in Scott's Blade Runner.

Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce): The multibillionaire CEO of Weyland Corp in Prometheus, who funds the mission. Pearce says he is in the film only briefly, but he has been heavily involved in the viral marketing campaign for it, including a hubristic video lecture set in 2023.

Janek (Idris Elba): The British actor made famous by The Wire plays Prometheus captain. Elba describes him as a longshoreman with a military background.

Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron): Plays a representative of Weyland Corp in Prometheus, sent to monitor the ship's mission. Theron says Vickers is a suit and a villain who either has an agenda or is hiding something.

Monster miscellany

Ridley Scott kept the fact that the alien would burst from John Hurt's chest secret from the rest of the cast so that their shocked responses in the first take were genuine.

The name of the ship Nostromo and the shuttle Narcissus in Alien are taken from the titles of two Joseph Conrad novels.

The spaceship USS Sulaco is named after a mining town in Conrad's Nostromo.

When Kane (John Hurt) first finds the creature eggs in Alien, the movement he sees inside one is Ridley Scott's hands, wearing a pair of rubber gloves.

Hans R Giger, the Swiss surrealist artist who designed the alien and the sets for the first film, designed an alien handle for his walking stick which he took to the Oscars to receive his Academy Award for best visual effects.

The name of the ship Prometheus stems from the Greek legend of the titan who stole fire from the god Zeus and gave it to man. Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock and every day having an eagle eat his liver, which grew back every night.

Bolaji Badejo, a 7'2" Nigerian design student who landed the role of the alien, was spotted in a bar. Ridley Scott thought his tall but slender frame could make the creature believable.

Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon originally named the film Star Beast, but changed it to Alien when he noticed how often the word appeared in the script.

Throughout Alien we hear about "the company". Only in the special edition and director's cut is it revealed to be the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the French director of Alien Resurrection, had to have a translator on set when he started work on the film because of his less than fluent English.

Joss Whedon, who wrote the story and screenplay for Alien Resurrection, intended it to end with a final showdown on Earth. He wrote five alternative endings based on Earth, but none of them was used.

Swede Noomi Rapace needed voice coaching to play the Briton Elizabeth Shaw.

Colin and Greg Strause, who directed AVPR, run their own special-effects company, Hydraulx, which they estimate produced 460 out of the 500 visual effects shots used in the film.

The original Alien might never have been made had it not been for the success of Star Wars.

Alien has been criticised for its overtly sexual imagery, with O'Bannon confirming that he wanted the facehugger's depositing of the alien embryo down men's throats to play on male fears of oral rape.

Charlize Theron had trouble filming some of the scenes of Prometheus. Her boots weighed 14kg, and her smoking habit made it difficult for her to run through sand.

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